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Sinology is the academic study of China primarily through Chinese language, literature, and history, and often refers to Western scholarship. Its origin "may be traced to the examination which Chinese scholars made of their own civilization."[1]

The field of sinology was historically seen to be equivalent to in the application of philology to China, and until the 20th century was generally seen as meaning "Chinese philology" (language and literature).[2] Sinology has broadened in modern times to include Chinese history, epigraphy, and other subjects.


The terms "sinology" and "sinologist" were coined around 1838,[3] and use "sino-", derived from Late Latin Sinae from the Greek Sinae, from the Arabic Sin which in turn may derive from Qin, as in the Qin Dynasty.[4]

Eastern sinology[edit]

In East Asia, the studies of China-related subjects began early. In Japan, sinology was known as kangaku (漢学?) "Han Studies". In modern China, the studies of China-related subjects is known as "National Studies" (simplified Chinese: 国学; traditional Chinese: 國學; pinyin: Guóxué; Wade–Giles: Kuo2-hsüeh2), and sinology is translated as "Han Studies" (simplified Chinese: 汉学; traditional Chinese: 漢學; pinyin: Hànxué; Wade–Giles: Han4-hsüeh2).

Western sinology[edit]

Beginnings to 17th century[edit]

The earliest Westerners to study the Chinese language were 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish missionaries seeking to spread Roman Catholicism among the Chinese people, and all of them belonged to either the Dominican Order or the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). A Spanish Dominican mission in Manila operated a printing press, and between 1593 and 1607 produced four works on Catholic doctrine for the Chinese immigrant community, three in Classical Chinese and one in a mixture of Classical Chinese and vernacular Hokkien.[5]

Dominican accomplishments among the Chinese diaspora pale in comparison to the success of the Jesuits in Mainland China, led by the renowned pioneer Matteo Ricci.[6] Ricci arrived in Canton (modern Guangzhou) in 1583 and spent the rest of his life in China. Unlike most of his predecessors and contemporaries, Ricci did not view the Chinese as "idolatrous pagans", but viewed them as "like-minded literati approachable on the level of learning."[7] He studied the Chinese Confucian classics, just like educated Chinese scholars, in order to present Catholic doctrine and European learning to the Chinese literati in their own language.[7]

18th century[edit]

During the Age of Enlightenment, sinologists started to introduce Chinese philosophy, ethics, legal system, and aesthetics into the West. Though often unscientific and incomplete, their works inspired the development of Chinoiserie and a series of debates comparing Chinese and Western cultures. At that time, sinologists often described China as an enlightened kingdom, comparing it to Europe, which had just emerged from the Dark Ages. Among those European literati interested in China was Voltaire, who wrote the play L'orphelin de la Chine inspired by The Orphan of Zhao, Leibniz who penned his famous Novissima Sinica (News from China) and Giambattista Vico.

In France, the study of China and the Chinese language began with the patronage of Louis XIV. In 1711, he appointed a young Chinese, Arcadio Huang to catalog the royal collection of Chinese texts. Huang was assisted by Étienne Fourmont, who published an grammar of Chinese in 1742.

In 1732 a missionary priest of the Sacred Congregation "De propaganda fide" from the kingdom of Naples, Matteo Ripa (1692–1746), created in Naples the first Sinology School of the European Continent: the "Chinese Institute", the first nucleus of what would become today's Università degli studi di Napoli L'Orientale, or Naples Eastern University. Ripa had worked as a painter and copper-engraver at the Manchu court of the emperor Kangxi between 1711 and 1723. Ripa returned to Naples from China with four young Chinese Christians, all teachers of their native language and formed the Institute sanctioned by Pope Clement XII to teach Chinese to missionaries and thus advance the propagation of Christianity in China.

19th century[edit]

In 1814, a chair of Chinese and Manchu was founded at Collège de France. Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, who taught himself Chinese, filled the position, becoming the first professor of Chinese in Europe. By then the first Russian Sinologist, Nikita Bichurin, had been living in Beijing for ten years. Abel-Rémusat's counterparts in England and Germany were Samuel Kidd (1797–1843) and Wilhelm Schott (1807–1889) respectively, though the first important secular sinologists in these two countries were James Legge and Hans Georg Conon von der Gabelentz. Scholars like Legge often relied on the work of ethnic Chinese experts such as Wang Tao. From 1850 to 1980, European Sinologists particularly valued classical competence in Classical Chinese.[8] Secular scholars gradually came to outnumber missionaries, and in the 20th century sinology slowly gained a substantial presence in Western universities.


In modern history, sinology has seen its influence in politics, due to its role in think tanks. The divide between China (the People's Republic of China) and Taiwan (the Republic of China) has further added to the complexity of study.[9] Funding for Chinese studies may come from a variety of sources; one prominent source, especially for Taiwanese studies, is the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.[10]

During the Cold War, China Watchers centered in Hong Kong, especially American government officials or journalists. Mutual distrust between the United States and China and the prohibition of travel between the countries meant they did not have access to press briefings or interviews. They therefore adopted techniques from Kremlinology, such as the close parsing of official announcements for hidden meanings, movements of officials reported in newspapers, and analysis of photographs of public appearances. But in the years since the opening of China, China watchers can live in China and take advantage of normal sources of information.


Main article: List of Sinologists


See also[edit]

Main article: Outline of sinology


  1. ^ Cf. p.4, Zurndorfer, China Bibliography
  2. ^ Honey 2001, p. xi.
  3. ^ Honey 2001, p. xi.
  4. ^ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 3rd edition 1992): 1686.
  5. ^ Honey 2001, p. 6.
  6. ^ Honey 2001, p. 9.
  7. ^ a b Honey 2001, p. 10.
  8. ^ Hodge, Bob; Louie, Kam (2012). "How to Read Dragons". The Politics of Chinese Language and Culture. Psychology Press. p. 3. 
  9. ^ Rosenthal, Elizabeth (May 1, 2001). "For China-Born U.S. Citizens, Visiting Homeland Has Risks". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ Brown, Deborah (September–December 2004). "Organizations That Support Taiwan Studies: A Select Overview". Issues & Studies 40 (3/4): 281–314. 

References and further reading[edit]

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